While lawmakers were away from Capitol Hill during the summer recess, Muslim Americans celebrated Ramadan, the holy month of fasting from sunrise to sunset.
Ramadan, which commemorates the revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad, ended in August. Now that Congress is back in session, the Congressional Muslim Staff Association will host a reception Wednesday to belatedly celebrate Eid al-Fitr, the holiday marking the conclusion of the holy month.
Ramadan’s message is timeless, said Assad Akhter, CMSA co-founder and vice president.
“Fasting changes your demeanor. When you’re not able to eat, you become more contemplative. You start to become aware of the world around you. You start thinking about what else you can be doing to better society,” he said. “There’s no reason you can’t apply what you learn and keep it all year round.”
CMSA and the State Department’s Congressional liaison office will co-host the reception, which will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. in Room 2226 of the Rayburn House Office Building. All Congressional staffers are welcome at the invitation-only event, although RSVPs are needed by Monday. About 200 people are expected to attend.
The CMSA has also extended invitations to several White House officials, including Rashad Hussain, the special envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and Paul Monteiro, the associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement. Officials from the departments of Homeland Security, Commerce and Defense and embassy officials from nations with significant Muslim populations have also been invited.
Farah Pandith, the State Department’s special representative to Muslim communities, will deliver a keynote address. Pandith said she tries to take advantage of opportunities for greater dialogue.
“The president really has re-energized the way in which we as diplomats think about reaching out,” she said. “I talk to thousands and thousands of young people around the world. I think it is very important that we engage and we’re listening.”
Congress’ two Muslim Members — Reps. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and André Carson (D-Ind.) — will likely address the crowd. Sen. John Kerry ( D-Mass.) and Reps. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) are expected to attend the reception.
Ellison has attended past CMSA Ramadan events and was a guest at the White House last month for iftar, or the breaking of the daily fast.
Ramadan “is a time of reflection for me,” said Ellison, who was the first Muslim elected to Congress. “When you fast and read the Quran and put in extra prayers and it’s just a time to sort of recharge your batteries and reconnect with the things that are most important in your life.”
Ellison said occasions commemorating Ramadan, such as the White House iftar or the CMSA’s Eid reception, are no different than events honoring other religious holidays.
“We demonstrate appreciation and respect for all the great faiths of the world that Americans adhere to,” he said.
Groups such as the Congressional Jewish Staff Association have held similar events in the past, including Passover Seders and Torah study sessions.
When the CMSA was founded in 2006, it held an open-invitation Ramadan event that attracted about 150 guests. It grew to nearly 600 people in 2009, Akhter said. Financial constraints forced the group to limit the event to about 200 invited guests starting in 2010.
“I think a lot of people who work on Capitol Hill are familiar with Muslims but don’t know a lot about Islam,” he said. “There’s a curiosity factor.”
Carson has enjoyed past Congressional Ramadan events and was also a guest at the White House iftar dinner. The events “present an opportunity not only to broaden your palate,” he said with a laugh, “but really mix and mingle with other people and really listen to their story.”
Carson spends Ramadan focusing on personal purification and helping those in need.
“One of the principles of fasting is to really make one sensitive to the poor and less fortunate,” he said. “I think it does a lot for the ego.”
Follow Elham Khatami on Twitter at @ekhatami